In late November 1999, fifty thousand protesters converged on Seattle in an attempt to direct public attention to the World Trade Organization (WTO), and its promotion of the process of global corporatization. Until that point, the US media had provided almost no coverage of the WTO, despite the fact that this extra-national organization had already forced the weakening of US laws protecting clean air and endangered species.
As a result of the Seattle protests, many people now know of the existence of the WTO, and what the three letters stand for. However, most people still have almost no knowledge of its operations and effects. With the nation's interest piqued, activists had hoped that Seattle would be a starting point for the education of the public. However, the WTO has disappeared from the media like the Cheshire cat, leaving only its smile.
I recently conducted a study of newspaper coverage of the WTO to determine in what contexts the WTO has and has not been mentioned. The study was conducted for publications from January 1, 2000, to November 1, 2000, using a full-text search of the ProQuest database of 27 major US daily newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle. The study shows that mentions of the WTO were virtually nonexistent in articles covering issues related to the WTO's attacks on domestic environmental and human rights laws, i.e., those issues most likely to turn public opinion against the WTO.
In 2000 there were two major WTO-related developments regarding protections of endangered species. (However, it is important to note that the WTO can be expected to continue its attack on all types of environmental, consumer safety, and human rights laws, including laws regarding: labor; labeling, irradiation, and genetic engineering of food; use of pesticides; and air and water quality standards.) One of the major WTO-related stories was a Federal Court ruling that thwarted the implementation of a weakened "dolphin-safe" labeling for tuna. The Federal Court ruled that the Commerce Department was attempting to prematurely implement the new labeling law without having even met the requirements of a weakened 1997 version of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). (The history of the MMPA is that dolphin protections in the initial 1990 version of the MMPA were twice ruled trade-illegal under GATT, the parent treaty to the WTO. To avoid the embarrassment of having a foreign authority force the revision of a domestic environmental law, Congress weakened the dolphin protections and the tuna labeling requirements of the MMPA in 1997.)
In marked contrast with the fanfare that the MMPA received upon its inception, the delay of the implementation of the eviscerated dolphin-safe labeling was only covered in three of the major U.S. dailies: San Francisco Chronicle, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times. Even more striking was the fact that the five articles published in those papers did not contain a single mention of GATT or the WTO.
A similar trend was exhibited when the scientific journal Nature published a study on June 1, 2000, predicting that leatherback sea turtles will be extinct within ten years unless fishing methods are substantially altered. Only four major US dailies (San Francisco Chronicle, New York Times, USA Today, Christian Science Monitor) covered the story, and none of the four articles mentioned the role the WTO has had in hampering the implementation of the Endangered Species Act. (Another dozen articles in the major dailies addressed other issues relating to endangered sea turtles during the period of the study, and, again, none of the articles mentioned the WTO.)
Curiously, in a San Francisco Chronicle article about the Nature study, the headline on the continuation page read, "International Trade Agreements Slow Protection of Sea Turtles," even though there was no mention of international trade agreements anywhere in the article. When I queried the reporter who wrote the story, he said a discussion of the relationship to trade agreements had been in the story. It was edited out by an editor--the headline had accidentally slipped through.
Another WTO-related development in 2000 was the Supreme Court's consideration of Massachusetts' selective purchasing law, which prevented the state government from contracting with corporations doing business with Burma. (Burma is ruled by a brutal military dictatorship which has killed and tortured thousands of pro-democracy activists, and has forced hundreds of thousands of people into slave labor.) Had the Supreme Court not decided against Massachusetts, the attack on the Massachusetts law would have escalated by resuming a pending WTO challenge mounted by Japan and the European Union.
Of the 47 articles and commentaries which covered the story, 43 contained no mention of the role of the WTO. Coyly, 9 of the 43 articles mentioned pressures from foreign countries without mention of the WTO. The Los Angeles Times went so far as to state cryptically that "In a sense, the Supreme Court case contains echoes of December's demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle." But the New York Times deserves the award for coyness for writing that the European Community had "lodged an official protest," and defenders of the Massachusetts law had "tapped into some of the populist anger ... recently directed against the World Trade Organization," without actually mentioning that the cited "official protest" was a WTO challenge.
The WTO did, however, make numerous U.S. headlines in 2000 for an export subsidies dispute between the U.S. and Europe, and for the grant of Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status to China. Neither issue involved a direct attack by the WTO on domestic environmental or human rights laws. Nine articles in the major dailies covered the export subsidies dispute with Europe, with mention of the WTO in all but one of the articles (a one-sentence squib in the Wall Street Journal), and the appearance of the WTO in three of the headlines. At least 1063 articles and commentaries covered PNTR for China. China's application for membership in the WTO was mentioned in 292 of the articles and commentaries, and referred to in 31 headlines. Although the articles often suggested a direct link between the grant of PNTR for China and China's admittance into the WTO, such was not the case. The relevance of the WTO is somewhat less direct and therefore less deserving of such frequent mention: Had the US not granted PNTR to China, and if China does attain membership in the WTO, then, if the US was to ever apply trade sanctions against China, China could retaliate via the WTO.
In summary, of the articles covering developments in the Marine Mammal Protection Act, none of them mentioned the WTO; none of the articles covering news related to endangered sea turtles mentioned the WTO; only a single article nationwide mentioned Malaysia's resumption of aggressions against the Endangered Species Act via the WTO; and less than 10% of the articles about the Massachusetts-Burma law mentioned the WTO. In contrast, with regards to the export subsidies dispute with Europe, the WTO was mentioned in nearly all of the articles, and appeared in one-third the headlines; and nearly 30% of the articles covering PNTR for China discussed the WTO. Furthermore, disregarding whether the WTO was mentioned or not, the 69 articles covering issues related to WTO attacks on US environmental and human rights laws was substantially outnumbered by 1080 articles covering other types of WTO-related news.
The WTO has indeed disappeared from the major US daily newspapers like the Cheshire cat, leaving behind only the innocuous grin of news which does not mention WTO attacks on US environmental, consumer safety, or human rights laws. And while this may be disheartening, hopefully it will galvanize our efforts to build grassroots, decentralized media to cover the news which the corporate media, due to their vested interests, choose to neglect.
The Disappearing WTO
As published in Tacoma Reporter, Buffalo Beat, Worcester Magazine, The Progressive Populist, Random Lengths News, New Democracy, WHY Magazine, LiP, and Project Censored: Most-Censored Stories of 2001.